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Monday, September 08, 2008

Celebrating Germaine

Over on Facebook, my MySpace friend Julie McNeill founded a discussion group named The Dawn Club in honour of Louisa Lawson, Australian writer, feminist and political activist (and mother of Henry) who founded a similar group of that name in her day.

Julie posed the question:

What book deeply moved you, made you grow as a woman, re-energised your spirit, nurtured you into wise ways and a life of marvellous existence? Do tell!

In an email message to group members she added:

Take a moment please and share with us a book which made a difference to your knowledge and psyche as a woman - did Germaine provoke? Gods Whores and Damn Police?

Was it The Beauty Myth that helped you change, or the gentle words of wisdom from a woman in another age?

My response:

It was Germaine. Absolutely! I'd read Betty Friedan first, but I wasn't married, didn't have kids, wasn't a housewife, and didn't live in America - so I couldn't relate at all to what she said, didn't know what she was on about. But Germaine is about my age, we were at Melbourne Uni at the same time (though our paths seldom crossed) and she grew up in the same suburb where I was working in my first job - in a library - when The Female Eunuch came out. Plenty of shared experience this time! Besides, she wrote with such wit and style, and was so unafraid to tell it like it was.

No, she didn't provoke. It was more like a blessed cry of relief to find someone articulating things I had been suppressing, imagining until then that I must be wrong because I didn't conform, didn't think how one was supposed to, how everyone else appeared to. Of course, lots of us were suppressing it all for the same reasons, until someone was clear-headed enough and brave enough to express it all, and to do so with such intelligence and down-to-earthness. Talk about cutting through the crap! She got me thinking - which is what good teachers do, so it's not surprising that a teacher is what she went on to become.

I'm still a great admirer of her brains, honesty and courage. Yes, she has changed her mind on a few things over the years - and because she writes books that sell, and is good media-fodder to boot, she does so publicly and gets criticised for it. Not that that seems to bother her much! Yes she has put her foot in it sometimes and/or said foolish things; haven't we all? None of that, to my mind, detracts from her abiding brilliance.

Her book on women artists, The Obstacle Race, which alas I no longer have, was one of my favourites and another which had great impact. I am a woman artist (poet) and can recall too well when it was common for men to point out that very few women had become great poets, implying that it wasn't within our make-up. I remember Germaine writing about a woman artist of a bygone era who, according to male contemporaries and historians, failed to fulfil her early promise - and the comment that, on reading that she had numerous children (I forget the exact number, but a LOT), we might cease to wonder at it!

Erica Jong made an impression too, with Fear of Flying, particularly when her heroine is asked by her psychiatrist, 'Who said you had to be a housewife AND a poet?' implying that it's enough to be a poet and more should not be asked of one. This of course still doesn't square with reality, where women still have to be housewives as well as whatever else they are if they want the housework done, and poets of either gender still have trouble feeding themselves unless they have some other job as well. All the same, the fact that someone, even in fiction, came out and said that there was something wrong with this, and said it in the '70s - ah, that was balm to my soul. And since then I do give the writing of poetry higher priority than cleaning the house or earning an income, even though I try to do all. I know I'm a poet who just happens to get housework to do too from time to time. I'm not a housewife who fits in a bit of scribbling around that when possible. And my life is certainly a damn sight more fulfilled this way.

Thank you Germaine! Thank you Erica!

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